Sunday, January 8, 2012

With Water and Fire

Mark 1:4-11
Baptism of the Lord
January 8, 2012
William G. Carter

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

It was a long time ago now, but I will never forget the day. It was the day a little girl was baptized right here in this church. Her name was Margaret Rose, and I was playing the role of father, rather than pastor. The pulpit gown was hanging on a hook across the hall and I had a red diaper bag slung over my shoulder. Even though I had a lot of experience as the splasher, I was extremely nervous that morning.

The one calming influence was the memory of how well the baptism of her older sister had gone some three years earlier. Meg was already wearing a hand-me-down. In this case the same ivory satin baptismal gown her sister had worn. Most of the same family members were gathered around as they had three years before, and they were beaming the same radiant smiles.

And then came the moment when the heavens were split apart. It was a scene that a lot of people did not notice.  You see, Meg's baptism was complicated by the presence of her three-year-old sister Katie. I had mixed feelings about having her there. It turned out they were justified. Katie fidgeted while the preacher spoke the ancient words of scripture. She saw some people in the pews that she knew and waved to them. They waved back and thought it was cute. Then in a loud three-year-old voice, she began to narrate what she saw going on.

It was time for the main event. To maintain a ounce of decorum, I put a gentle vise-grip on Katie's shoulders as the water was splashed on her sister's head. Apparently it wasn't firm enough. That's when it happened. As the water splashed, Katie broke free with a delighted squeal and ran to her infant sister. Even though the minister was still holding the baby, she reached up to touch her sister’s head. With eyes as big as saucers, she turned and looked at me. "Daddy," she said out loud, "Meg's head is wet. It really happened. She’s baptized!"

            Now my family says I amplify the event, but that’s how it happened. Maybe my memories of parental anxiety have enhanced the details. But the point of the story is still the same: it really happened. The baptism really happened. That’s what every Christian needs to know. We want to know that every baptism really happens.

What is a baptism any way? It is the moment when God announces a claim on us through water and the Word. God announces that we are citizens in a new dominion before we even know it. God gathers us in a love that precedes all human relationships, a love that comes before every family tie. Baptism announces that we belong to God. It’s good to know that every baptism occurs.

Now there's no doubt that the baptism of Jesus really happened. For one thing, all the writers tell us it was accompanied by astonishing signs. When Jesus was baptized, he came up from the water and saw the heavens had been ripped open. Then the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of God, came down like a dove and landed upon him. And then a great Voice spoke the coronation words from the second Psalm: "This is my beloved Son. I am pleased with him." The actual baptism of Jesus is not described in elaborate detail. But the signs confirm that it truly took place.

What's more, there is no way that the church would have ever dreamed up a story about the baptism of Jesus. Frankly, it is too embarrassing. John was in the Jordan River, baptizing people as a sign of repentance. Then Jesus appeared. We don't know if Jesus came to the river to repent. We don't think so, but it's hard to explain. Jesus took his place among sinners. As people were baptized by John in anticipation of the Messiah, Jesus appeared, apparently to join them. The church couldn't have invented a tale like that. Every New Testament scholar I know agrees: the baptism of Jesus was a historical event. It really happened.

Now, if a three-year-old touches her baby sister's brow at the baptismal font and discovers it's really wet, she knows something special has happened. And when we hear the of a day when the heavens open, a dove descends, and a Voice calls out, there is no question that God has broken into human history in a profound and significant way.

According to the brief story we heard a few minutes ago, the baptism of every child of God finds its meaning from the baptism of Jesus. For Jesus and for us, the evidence of baptism is found in what we do with our lives. Baptism is more than knowing that our little sisters' heads are wet. It is an event that guides the way we live. What matters most is how we live after the water has dried.

That's what the baptism of Jesus was all about. As Mark tells the story, this is the moment when Jesus first walks in to the picture. We don’t know anything about him until he is hip deep in the Jordan River.  In the Gospel of Mark, there are no shepherds, no wise men, no angels, no mention of Mary and Joseph. There is no manger, no temple dedication, no Christmas carols by Simeon and Anna.  There is only a baptism, as if to say, "Here is how it all began. This is when Jesus began to make a difference in peoples' lives. This is when heaven touched down on earth." His ministry began when he was baptized.

            For what happened when Jesus came out of the water? Suddenly he is hurled into the wilderness to battle the devils and demons. He goes into their own turf to take them on. And he comes out of the wilderness triumphant.

Then he goes to a sleepy synagogue in a small fishing village and begins to preach. Just as he speaks, a man in the fifth pew stands up and starts to yell. Jesus yells right back. And the man screams and Jesus screams. Jesus says, “Shut up!” Suddenly there was a great calm. The man is OK. The people say, "We've never heard a sermon like that before." Jesus teaches the congregation and mends the man.

And just then, he goes to the house of Simon and Andrew, where Simon's mother-in-law was in bed with a fever. And immediately Jesus takes her by the hand, lifts her up, and chases away the fever. And she feels so good, she cooks them lunch.

And immediately the word spreads. Even though it was the evening of the Sabbath and people were supposed to sit back and do nothing, suddenly they got busy. The people brought to Jesus all of their damaged neighbors. He healed every one of them. It was all in a day's work: preaching, teaching, and saving the world.

Remember how it got started? When Jesus got baptized. Baptism is the moment when God says, “You belong to me – and I am sending you into the world to make a difference.” To make a constructive difference. To make a holy difference. The heavens have been ripped open, baby, and there’s no word that they have been stitched shut. The Spirit comes down, lands on Jesus, and is refracted now through everybody who loves Jesus – all to the end of making a constructive difference in the world.

It’s not just the water that was on his head; it’s the fire God ignited in his heart. Just as John promised: “I splash you with water, but he fills you with fire.”

Last summer, we heard about praying women who got together in this little railroad stop town and prayed this congregation into being. Last fall, we heard about the Gibbons family, who convened a congregation into being. They had come back from the mission field, and they knew God has a mission in the world, that God wanted a church to make a difference in the world.

Now, there were a few other churches already in the area. There was a Catholic chapel, a number of Methodist churches about a horse ride apart. But these Presbyterians wanted a church with a democratic government that would make a difference in the world. You see, for them it was not a matter of merely singing some hymns, praying a bit, and calling it a day. They wanted God’s work to get done.

It’s the same work that Jesus is still doing: teaching, healing, mending the world one person at a time. And I have to say it is a wonderful thing to serve a church that understands his ministry. This is not a congregation that sits around and does nothing. There are Christians here. Baptized people. They take on Christ’s ministry as their own.

On any given day, the people in this church are looking in on one another. They are making phone calls and offering rides. They deliver meals and welcome strangers. They rejoice with those rejoicing, they offer a firm shoulder to those who feel broken down. They breathe forgiveness. They contribute to human needs out of their own resources. And a lot of this is done without any fanfare, because people know: if you are baptized, you are sent to do Christ’s ministry.

In fact, that little girl that got baptized sixteen years ago? Last night at 10:00, she was bugging me. “Dad, take your checkbook to church. We have to get in my deposit for the youth group’s summer mission trip.” Apparently enough of you have been working on her – just as you continue to work on her sister, on me, on one another – and this is exactly how Christ’s ministry takes flesh among us. We are the community of the baptized.

The good news in our text is that God does not abandon the world to its own inclinations. God does not ignore a world that is prone to its own selfishness. God does not walk away from a world that is enamored with its own destruction. No, says Mark, God rips open the sky and comes down here. And in the curious left-handed power of Jesus, lives are healed. Compassion is enlarged. Wisdom is deepened. The world is rescued, one square foot at a time.      

            That is the promise of Christ’s baptism and ours. Heaven touches earth, and earth is changed. It happens through our ministry, the ministry we share. And that leads me to say, don’t ever abandon the work of the Gospel to the professionals. It doesn't matter if you spend your time building houses or cleaning them. God has something for you to do with your life. It doesn't matter if you punch numbers into a machine or make life-and-death decisions with the stroke of a pen. What matters is you serve God, full-time, every hour of every day. It doesn't matter if you are retired, employed, or looking for work. What matters is that you see your life as a ministry. And what you do with your life matters more than you can ever know.

            It has been that way ever since Jesus went down into the Jordan River and came up to see that the world has changed. When Jesus was baptized, God called him the king. Ever since, those of us who are baptized in his name are called to live as if Jesus really is the ruler of heaven and earth. That won't be easy. There are forces that hurt and destroy human life. There are demons to cast out and telephones to answer. There are headaches to cast away and furnaces to fix. There are sins to forgive and equities to establish. Most of all, there are a lot of people who need a lot of love. And it matters what we do with the time God has given us.

            It has always been that way. The true Christian does not withdraw from the world to say, "I've been washed in the waters of baptism; now I'm going to sit back in my Easy Chair." Rather the true Christian says, "It's time to get out of the water. There is something God has for me to do." 

(c) William G. Carter
All rights reserved

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